Great Football League Teams 20: Nottingham Forest, 1993-4
Just as the gravy train was rolling into English football the managerial talents of Brian Clough were clocking off. The Premier League was launched in 1992 and Forest started with a huge amount of optimism, reinforced by an opening day victory over Liverpool at the City Ground courtesy of a single goal from Teddy Sheringham, or Edward as his ever eccentric manager insisted on calling him. Those of us at the game were happily talking up our chances for this new season blissfully unaware that our star striker had immediately after the final whistle announced to the waiting Sky cameras that he wanted to leave the club and move back to London. It was a bit early for a turning point but it was certainly a key moment in Forest’s season as the deflated team he left behind went on to lose the next six games and begin an unstoppable slide towards relegation.
Recent focus on Clough has seemed at times to be inclined to question his individual ability, implying that the influence of his long time partner in management Peter Taylor was the key to his successes. Whilst I would certainly not wish to downplay the part that Taylor played in the achievements of the great Nottingham Forest of the late 1970s, and those of other clubs before they arrived on Trentside, my experiences of following Forest teams built by Clough in the aftermath of his fallout with his friend convince me of his talent.
There may not have been a return to the heights of European Cup success but a series of top ten finishes in the first division alongside regular participation in the finals and semi-finals of both the FA and League cups represent a very impressive record and he did it all with style.
In 1991 Forest finally made it to the FA Cup final, having fallen at the semi final stage to arch rivals Liverpool in both 1988 and 1989. It was heralded as the opportunity for Clough to finally add to his cabinet the one major trophy that had eluded him in his managerial career to date. When Forest were beaten by Tottenham Hotspur in a controversial final dominated by the referee, Roger Milford, and Spurs midfielder Paul Gascoigne, there were many who thought it might be time for him to bow out and enjoy his retirement. In hindsight that may have been for the best as despite appearing at Wembley again in 1992 this time beaten by Manchester United in the League Cup final, his aura was waning and his health visibly declining.
It was never more certain that Cloughie had finally lost his touch than when, in the aftermath of Sheringham’s departure and having seen his team struggling for goals, he declared that he had secured the services of a proven Premier League goal scorer to revive the team only to unveil Robert Rosario, whose most memorable contribution to the cause was when he tripped over his own feet whilst put clean through on goal.
The eventual departure of Clough from the club was handled particularly shoddily by the Forest board but the send off he received from the fans, and those of the visiting team Sheffield United, at the last home game of the season was fully reflective of his incredible achievements rather than that day’s confirmation of surrendering top flight status. It was a hugely emotional occasion that demonstrated just how much of an impression he had left on the club and how potentially difficult the transition to a post-Clough era was going to be.
He had recommended Frank Clark as his successor and the affable former player was duly appointed, once his old Forest team-mate Martin O’Neill had turned down the job because of the board’s refusal to allow him to bring his assistant, another Forest legend – John Robertson, with him from Wycombe Wanderers. Clark is an extremely likeable character who is well respected in the game and had won both Championship and European medals with Forest and this continuity was to prove valuable despite his relatively unexciting record as manager of Leyton Orient. Managers who have followed Clough into the City Ground hot seat have often appeared intimidated by the shadow of his achievements but Clark’s humility, and possibly his involvement in those achievements, seemed to allow him to focus on his own team rather than the photos adorning corridor walls.
Relegation had meant that some key Forest players left the club but with good fees attached, most notably Nigel Clough heading to Liverpool for over £2 million and Roy Keane to Manchester United for a then record fee of £3.75 million. Nigel had spent a good deal of his life at Forest, latterly as a player but as a child he had sat on the bench next to his father, but the unsavoury nature of the way Brian was pushed out had left a sour taste in his mouth that one wonders perhaps still taints his relationship with Forest as he sits in his own managerial office down the road at Derby County. These transfers gave Clark a substantial war chest with which to re-build his squad and the retention of Stuart Pearce gave prospective transfer targets – and shell shocked fans – a reason to believe in the club’s ability to return to the Premier League.
The new manager went out and immediately did what Clough had refused to. He brought in striker Stan Collymore from Southend United and defender Colin Cooper from Millwall, thus righting Clough’s biggest errors and finally replacing Teddy Sheringham and Des Walker. Both new players had been on Forest’s radar for some time but Clough had been unwilling to commit the funds on Collymore during the relegation battle.
In less high profile moves he signed experienced midfield player David Phillips from Norwich, Des Lyttle from Swansea City to replace departing right back Gary Charles and crucially in the November after a less than spectacular start to the season Norwegian international Lars Bohinen from Young Boys of Berne, who became an immediate hero in the stands and added creative flair to the midfield.
When Bohinen arrived on the 5 November 1993 Forest had managed just 4 wins from their opening 14 matches and the fans, who had been expecting an immediate and dominant return to the top flight, were getting a little twitchy in their “On loan to Division One” t-shirts. The Norwegian provided the catalyst however for a run that saw them lose just 3 more games in the league and finish 2nd behind Crystal Palace to claim promotion. Although Bohinen’s arrival seemed to provide the final piece to the jigsaw he was by no means the only shining light in the squad. Stan Collymore scored 25 goals in 35 appearances in all competitions playing largely as a lone front man in a 4-5-1 formation and was ably assisted by the midfield five, Scot Gemmill – another link to Forest’s past through his father Archie – scoring 10 and wingers Stone, Woan and Black 5 each, whilst Phillips sat in front of the back four providing stability in defence and the springboard for attacking.
At the back Cooper struck up an immediate understanding and friendship with local lad Steve Chettle and displayed a talent for goalscoring himself, posing a serious threat at corners and chipping in with 9 goals, including one against rivals Derby County at the Baseball Ground that set up the opportunity to secure promotion away at Peterborough on the 30th April.
Clark set up his team in a 4-5-1 formation that looked a lot in terms of shape like Mourinho’s Chelsea with a midfield V in front of a flat back four and Collymore in the loan striker role that Drogba fulfilled for the London side. Although still seen at the time as a defensive formation this did allow Clark to get the best from his resources with Collymore’s talents and personality well suited to playing alone in attack and the midfield five allowing the manager to field his whole range of midfield talent. Although various fringe players featured at different stages the first choice line-up, beyond which there was not a great deal of depth, once Bohinen had arrived to facilitate it looked like this:
The following season saw the addition of Dutch World Cup star Bryan Roy and the team went on to finish 3rd in the Premier League and qualify for the UEFA Cup. Then the team began to disintegrate with Collymore moving to Liverpool for a record transfer fee and Bohinen taking his slightly bizarre contract demands to the wealthier Blackburn. Forest have never fully recovered and this team remains the best of the post-Clough era. Fifteen years after they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup at the quarter final stage by Bayern Munich my memories of them still give me pleasure.